It is doubtful that an American lives today who has not been made aware of the horrors of slavery that existed in our country in the mid-nineteenth century before it was abolished through the efforts of President Abraham Lincoln. A film such as “12 Years of Slave” is necessary to remind us once again that inhumanity existed in a country that promised liberty and justice for all.
It is difficult to believe that a man of such dignity, Solomon Northrup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who lived in New York State, and who was an accomplished carpenter and violin player could, in the year 1841, be kidnapped and sold into slavery. It is a true story and it happened. Solomon was offered a two-week job as a musician in California by two nefarious men who drugged him and chained him, and then sold him into slavery.
Solomon, against his wishes, was given the name of Platt by the slave auctioneer (Paul Giametti). His first master, William Ford, was a decent man who used the Bible to justify his ownership of slaves. He gifted Solomon with a violin which helped the slave endure his torturous confinement. However, a confrontation with Ford’s cruel overseer caused Solomon to be sold to another master to settle a debt. This master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), was both an alcoholic and probably a psychopath. He required each slave to pick a minimum of 200 pounds of cotton every day, or face a beating if he or she did not reach that goal.
Epps also raped the young, pretty slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) even though his wife was furious at his behavior and sought to humiliate and punish Patsey at every turn.
The viewer is forced to witness cruel beatings of Patsey as well as Solomon through the cruelty of Epps and his wife. Such a scene is not atypical, as any historian of slavery knows. It is well to bring this to the attention of the American public who, today, witnesses great strides in the treatment of minorities in this country, notwithstanding the fact that much more needs to be done.
Brad Pitt, one of several producers of “12 Years a Slave,” takes on an acting role in the film as well. He plays the part of Bass, a Canadian opposed to slavery, who is hired to do some carpentry work on Epps’ plantation. Working alongside another skilled carpenter, Platt, he learns in secret about Platt’s unjust confinement to slavery. At risk to his own life, Bass starts the wheels in motion to free Solomon Northrup.
“12 Years a Slave” won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture of the Year. Lupita Nyong’o, who played Patsey, also won an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. Steve McQueen is the first black producer/director whose film was named Best Motion Picture of the Year.
Brad Pitt and Paul Giametti are probably the only actors with whom an American audience is familiar, although the film employed a huge cast of characters to exemplify life on a southern plantation during those horrific times. The scenes were shot in historic plantations in Louisiana, one of which was quite near the actual plantation where Solomon Northrup lived for 12 years.
The ending of the film, though joyful for the release of the slave after 12 years has also a tinge of sadness upon his return to his home in New York State. Today, the final days of Solomon Northrup are clothed in mystery, with no one able to put together that piece of the puzzle.
12 Years a Slave (2013)